South Carolina death row inmate chooses firing squad — what led to this?

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A death row inmate in South Carolina set to be executed later this month has chosen to die by firing squad rather than the electric chair, according to court documents filed Friday.

Richard Bernard Moore, 57, has spent more than two decades on the state’s death row after he was convicted of killing a convenience store employee in 1999. A circuit judge had set his execution date for 2002, but prosecutors said at the time they expected years of appeals.

Now, two decades later, Moore is set to be executed on April 29, the first person to be put to death in South Carolina since 2011. He’s chosen death by firing squad — what led to this?

Why can S.C. inmates choose how they die?

South Carolina law states death row inmates must choose their method of death 14 days before their execution date. A law passed by the Legislature in 2021 makes death by electric chair the default method if an inmate refuses to make a selection.

Moore is the first inmate — one of 35 men on the state’s death row — to choose how he’ll be executed. On Friday, he wrote in a statement filed with the state’s Supreme Court, “I more strongly oppose death by electrocution.”

Richard Moore
Richard Bernard Moore, a death row inmate in South Carolina, has chosen to be executed by firing squad. (South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

“Because the department says I must choose between firing squad or electrocution or be executed by electrocution, I will elect firing squad,” Moore wrote, and added: “I believe this election is forcing me to choose between two unconstitutional methods of execution.”

Why not lethal injection?

Lethal injection is the most common form of legal execution in the United States, with 30 states and the federal government using it as their primary method, according to data from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington-based nonprofit.

In addition to the 1,363 executions by lethal injection since 1976 — the year the Supreme Court confirmed capital punishment is legal under certain circumstances — 163 inmates have been electrocuted, 11 have died in the gas chamber, three were hanged and three others were executed by firing squad.

Lethal injection often includes three drugs: pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Pentobarbital puts the inmates to sleep, and pancuronium bromide paralyzes them before the potassium chloride ultimately stops the heart.

Eight states use one drug — a lethal dose of an anesthetic — to execute inmates. In South Carolina, where lethal injection is allowed, the procedure uses three drugs. But the state hasn’t been able to obtain the drugs needed for years — because according to Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling, manufacturers and pharmacies have refused to help — prompting the state’s General Assembly to pass the new law last year so executions could start up again.

Death by firing squad

South Carolina joins Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah in allowing death by firing squad. The state’s corrections agency last month said it had finished developing the proper protocols for executions using that method, in which an inmate is hooded and strapped to a metal chair with restraints before three volunteer prison workers fire their rifles at the inmate’s heart.

Moore’s death would be the fourth firing-squad execution in the U.S. following Ronnie Lee Gardner’s in 2010. Gardner, who was on death row in Utah for the 1984 murder of an attorney, was strapped to a chair in a room at a prison. According to witnesses, a black hood was placed on his head and a small target was placed over his heart before he was executed by a five-person firing squad.

In 2017, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that, “In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless.”

The 110-year-old electric chair, with its wooden head rest and orange restraints, in a plain brick room that also contains a small table and a trash can lined with plastic.
This March 2019 photo shows the 110-year-old electric chair that South Carolina uses for executions. (Kinard Lisbon/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

For comparison, other methods of execution are often botched: The DPIC estimates that from 1890 to 2010, 3% have gone awry. Lethal injection has resulted in at least 75 botched executions, and electrocution at least 84. In all, there have been at least 276 botched executions — but none by firing squad.

In October 2021, John Marion Grant convulsed and vomited as he was executed in Oklahoma after he was given a sedative. In 2018, the state of Alabama tried to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, but workers couldn’t find a suitable vein to inject the drugs into his body. He ended up with 10 to 12 puncture marks, “including six in his groin and others that punctured his bladder and penetrated his femoral artery.” He died of cancer four years later.

A ‘barbaric’ way to die

Moore’s attorneys continue to appeal his death in both state and federal courts.

Lindsey Vann, executive director of Justice 360 who is serving as Moore’s attorney, wrote in court papers filed this week: “The electric chair and the firing squad are antiquated, barbaric methods of execution that virtually all American jurisdictions have left behind.”

She recently said death by electrocution and firing squad “are execution methods that previously were replaced by lethal injection, which is considered more humane.” The new state law, she added, “makes South Carolina the only state going back to the less humane execution methods.”

Moore’s attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to push back his execution while another court determines if either electrocution or firing squad would violate a state ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Attorneys claim corrections officials have not demonstrated that they cannot obtain the drugs needed for lethal injection instead.

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